March 2, 2008
With over 25 years in the scouting business, Tom Bourque knows how to evaluate talent on a baseball field. Currently a professional scout for the Cubs, Bourque has also worked for the Brewers, the Expos, and the Major League Scouting Bureau. Based in the Northeast, he has been in the Cubs organization since 1995. David talked to Bourque about learning to grade tools, why batting practice is important, and the value of makeup and pretty swings.
David Laurila: How did you get into scouting?
Tom Bourque: When I got out of [Amherst] college in 1980, Harry Dalton was the general manager of the Brewers, and he had been at Amherst College himself, of course some 30 years earlier. Dan Duquette had just been hired to work in their front office. That was kind of a funny time, because a lot of teams had been downsizing because of the Scouting Bureau. I had been a washed-up, injured catcher, but knew a lot of scouts from tryout camps, and at the time the Brewers didn't have a lot of scouts, so they were beefing up their organization. I wrote a letter to Dalton, and ended up getting hired in the fall of 1981.
DL: How did you learn the trade?
TB: For the most part I was out on my own. There was a guy named Gerry Craft, who is with Houston now, and he was the first guy I met with the Brewers. I went down to the instructional league in the fall and spent three days going to games with him, and while he wasn't my boss, he did kind of become my mentor. Ironically--or I should say luckily--Gerry was a natural teacher, and ended up starting his own scout school about five years later in California. I learned more from him than anybody else. But in those days you were kind of just thrown out there. I went to some games, and they said, "Write some reports; let's see what you can do."
DL: Who were the first players you scouted?
TB: Robby Thompson, who went on to play second base for the Giants, was the first player I wrote a report on. Oddibe McDowell was the second. I saw them play against each other in a junior college game in Orlando. I wrote up reports--this is right after Gerry told me how to do things--and they hired me.
DL: You went on to help train a lot of young scouts at the Major League Scouting Bureau. What were some of the things taught there?
TB: Don Pries is the one who started it. Each major league team could send two people to learn about scouting. I was a supervisor there, and here is the way it was at the time: it was a two-week training that started with Don going over the paperwork, and some of the other boring stuff that goes into the job. We'd do the school in the fall, during instructional league, so everyone would get to see some pretty good players. We'd start looking at each tool, and it was a little monotonous at first because it was one thing at a time with lots of discussion as to what was major league average and what types of things you could project to improve. One day we'd break down pitchers' deliveries, and then the next day it would be position players' throwing, and the next day fielding, and then it would be hitting. But it was really good teaching-wise, because most of the guys would come in thinking, "I know this stuff." Then we'd go to games, where there would be certain guys we'd ask them to grade out--that is, on a scale of 20 to 80, where 20 is poor, 50 is major league average, and 80 is a perennial all-star. We'd have them grade the tools of players on each team, and they wouldn't always know if [who they were assigned to evaluate] was a player or not. I remember one Saturday, we went to a high school game where Johnny Damon was playing for one team, and someone else who was pretty good was playing for the other team. We asked them to watch the center fielder for--I think Damon's school was Dr. Phillips--and the catcher for the other team might have been Jason Varitek. We also asked them to write up the next best guy they saw in that game. That kind of overwhelmed most of them, because it was a lot harder than going over the more talented guys they had seen in instructional league, where pretty much everybody could do something. It was at that point, about a week in, where we had the guys realizing that scouting isn't quite as easy as they thought it was. They started listening a lot better after that.
DL: Who were some of the scouts you helped to train?
TB: One year, in the same class we had Kenny Williams, who is now the GM for the White Sox, DeJon Watson, who is with the Dodgers, and Ray Fagnant and Marc DelPiano, who are with the Red Sox. They and about 15 other guys who are still working as full time scouts or as front office guys were also in that class. There were a lot of guys each of the first few years I was there. I call them all "Boss" now.
DL: Who was the first player you signed?
TB: Billy Jo Robidoux, from Ware, Massachusetts. Billy Jo was a big, thick-bodied guy, and if he had signed five years later they would have had him with a personal trainer. What he would do is go home, just like everybody else back then, after the baseball season and not work out, and then go like crazy in January. His problem was that he got tight, and it led to some injuries. If he'd have signed a few years later, he probably would have had a better career, because he would have taken care of his body better. It was around that time that teams got better at working with players on conditioning. But Billy Jo was a great guy, and he could really hit.
DL: How many guys did you sign when you were an amateur scout?
TB: I really don't know. For one thing, half the time I was an amateur scout--seeing high school and college players as opposed to what we call a pro scout, who only watches minor and major league players for trades--I was a cross-checker, and in that capacity you're not signing guys. Cross-checkers see the better players in each area that have been identified by area scouts--New England area, or Mid-Atlantic area, etc.--and compare the better players from Florida to New England. Also, signing guys in baseball is one of the weirdest things. Like everything else, there are so many variables. You could recommend a lot of really good players, but if the cross-checker and scouting director don't draft them, it doesn't matter. You do have a track record though, because everything is on paper.
DL: Who were some of the more intriguing players you never got an opportunity to sign, for whatever reason?
TB: One is Scott Burrell, who Seattle drafted and didn't sign. A couple years later Toronto drafted him, and I think they made a mistake by making him a pitcher. I still believe Burrell was the best free agent prospect, tools-wise, I've ever seen. He wanted to play basketball, which kind of made it difficult, but he had potential like David Winfield in the outfield. He could throw, run, and hit. I actually liked him more as a position player. I guess we'll never know what he would have done, but he played at UConn and the NBA some.
DL: Is it harder to evaluate pitchers or hitters?
TB: I don't think one is easier than the other. Most people will probably say pitchers because velocity is one thing you can always fall back on. I suppose hitters are harder to evaluate, but there's no easy answer as to why.
DL: When you're watching a hitter, what are you looking for?
TB: It depends somewhat on the level, but you're looking for athletic ability, balance, quickness, strength. You can't teach bat speed. You have to make sure that a guy doesn't have a fear of the ball. When you do high school, and when you cross check, you have to go a lot with what you see pre-game. Batting practice is huge, because you get to see a lot of things there. If you like a guy in batting practice, then you have to watch him in the game to make sure he has aggressiveness and no fear, but there are so many variables, and a lot of times when you're doing free agent amateur scouting, you only get one shot at seeing a guy, especially up north. As a cross-checker, you go a lot on what your area scout tells you, and because you may only be getting one look, you better see batting practice. Otherwise, you might have wasted a trip.
DL: As a cross-checker, did you try to evaluate from a blank slate, or was it more of wanting to verify or debunk what was on the area scout's report?
TB: Guys do things differently, but when you're cross-checking, it's important to realize you may only get that one shot. In my mind, when you're training scouts, you want them to paint a good picture of the guy. But if you exaggerate on something--and I used to get in fights with guys about this--if someone is 5'9" and 160 pounds, that's what you should put down. A lot of guys would put down 5'11" and 180 pounds, and if they did that they'd lose credibility with me because right away you see they are wrong. There are smaller guys who can play, and guys can get bigger, so you shouldn't exaggerate. If you write a good report, someone should be able to walk in and have a pretty good idea of what the guy looks like, both physically and the types of things he can do. You should have a picture painted in your mind, and with that one shot you're trying to see if you agree with, and can fine-tune, what he's put down.
DL: Do you think it's dangerous for a cross-checker to get one look?
TB: Yeah, but 25 years ago you almost always only got to see a guy once. Now you see guys more often because there are showcases that better players go to and things like that. You generally have better histories on guys, which is a much better way to evaluate. But sure, it's dangerous to only see someone once--absolutely. Something I find kind of funny is when I go to a pro park and scouts will be complaining because the players will be hitting and will just have their warm-up jerseys on. They won't have their names or numbers. Some scouts get all bent out of shape, because they don't know who they're looking at. Personally, I like that. I watch batting practice trying to break guys down and see if I can figure out who the better guys are. I break them down by their body-type and take notes on their swings, and I'm curious to see who they are when they come to the plate in the game. It's kind of fun, like a challenge.
DL: Can you tell much from the sound of the ball off someone's bat?
TB: Oh, yeah. You can tell how a ball carries off someone's bat. I'm a big believer in BP, because I've never seen a good hitter who didn't take a good BP. And the opposite is true, too. There was a guy who was with the Red Sox for awhile that I saw throughout the minor leagues, and Joe Morgan asked me about him once. This was Joe Morgan who managed for the Red Sox. I remember saying to him, "Joe, when the ball comes off his bat it sounds like he's using plywood, or something. The ball just doesn't zing off his bat." I don't know if it was the strength of the guy's hands, or what it was, but something just wasn't there. He had a nice swing, and he made good contact, but the ball just didn't scream off his bat. When you're in the big leagues, the ball has to scream off your bat. That is especially so if hitting is your ticket. When I played, even though I'm good-sized I had to hit the ball perfectly to get it out of the park. I couldn't just miss and have success. A lot of guys can just miss, and still hit it 400 feet because they're so strong and the ball comes off their bat better.
DL: Sticking with hitting, what is the difference between a hitch and a trigger?
TB: If the stuff that happens is early--as long the bat is in the right spot from the time it starts to come forward--I don't really care much what it did beforehand. Of course, you have your extreme guys like Sheffield, and you wouldn't want to teach something like that, but he can get away with it.
DL: How can you tell a correctable flaw from one that can't be corrected?
TB: That's the $64,000 question. You're always trying to figure that out. If a guy has quickness and strength, then you try to find out about his aptitude as best you can. You have to be able to make adjustments. Almost all guys have flaws, and you have to figure out if they have the aptitude to change the flaws. You put certain percentages on different things, like "can you change a wrap?" or "can you change a hook?" There are different percentages in everyone's mind as to which are easier to fix and whether the guy has the aptitude to do it. That's part of what you're doing as a scout.
DL: How much do you value makeup?
TB: Makeup is big, and it can be one of the hardest things to read. Tommy Glavine has always been one of my favorites. He was one of the easiest kids I ever scouted. I was at a game and asked a guy who the best player was in the area, and he said, "You're going to think I'm crazy, but it's this kid that's just a sophomore, Tommy Glavine." He told me that he was this little pitcher down at Billerica (MA) High School, and he wrote down his name. So the summer before his junior year I went down to see him, and started a good history with him. He was a good hitter too, but mostly he was a smooth, easy athlete. And he was a winner. He had that same look that you see from him now, on TV. He was just a great competitor who always performed well, and even though he didn't throw 100 [mph] you knew there was something there. You get to know the families, and he was one of the nicest kids you'll ever meet, but on the field he was a ferocious competitor. That's a great combination, something you'd call great makeup. On the other hand, there was another guy I scouted--and he'll remain nameless--who played a little bit in the big leagues, but you were always hearing about off-the-field stuff about him. He was kind of a blustery guy, and he was way ahead of Glavine as an 18-year-old performer. He could have gone out and pitched for a big-league team the next day--he could have stood out there on the mound and no one would have realized he was just 18 years old. Yet, he didn't have mental toughness. When things didn't go his way, he went the other way. Not having good makeup kept him from being a good big-leaguer.
DL: A lot of teams do psychological evaluations on players prior to signing them.
TB: There are all sorts of tests, but none of them are foolproof. Different people read differently, and learn differently. You have bright kids, and there are others who might be at a technical school and English is their second language. To say that a test can tell you about their makeup--I don't believe that. It's just a variable that can be used sometimes. Makeup is a hard thing, and you just do the best you can. I remember being with Jim Walton from the Bureau, a guy who has been doing it for 100 years, and we talked to a woman psychologist this one time. We asked her about all of these different tests, and asked her "If you were us, what would you do to try to assess a kid's makeup and his future makeup?" She said that with all the science in the world, the one thing she could tell us is "Does he look you in the eye when you ask him a tough question?" Of course, most of these kids have agents now, and they're probably telling them to make sure they always look you in the eye when you're talking to them. So is there a true test? I don't think there is one.
DL: Are there any players you've been high on who weren't as heavily touted by most other scouts? I'm thinking of a Dustin Pedroia-type, whose tools don't necessarily jump out at you.
TB: Dustin Pedroia is a great example of that. In the era I was trained in, you didn't talk much--you don't tell people about the smart things you did, or the stupid things you did. So I don't really like to do that too much. Having said that, now I'll tell you how smart I was on that one. I was a Pedroia guy from the first time I saw him. I saw him play in college, although that was by chance--I wasn't there scouting--and then I saw him in pro ball. Watching him play his first summer of pro ball, I fell in love with him, in part because I realized he was a rat. I know that some guys in the amateur ranks felt the Red Sox had way over-drafted him, but I didn't feel that way. Some of that may have been bias, for one reason or another, but you have to try to be objective at all times in this business. And tools-wise, he's not nearly as bad as some people think.
DL: Which hitters have the prettiest swings you've seen?
TB: Pretty swings? I don't know. It's not a beauty contest. Most big leaguers have pretty swings. I think more of production. Like with Pedroia, you have to look at the whole picture. Mechanics are important, and while he probably swings too hard, he's actually very short to the ball. People think his swing is long, but most of that comes afterwards, because he ties himself up being so aggressive. But one of the clichés that older scouts will use is that the big guys have to prove they can't play and the little guys have to prove that they can, and that's still true. Pedroia is obviously one of those guys.
DL: How much do you rely on video?
TB: You can get really fooled on video. You can generally scout pitchers pretty well on TV, but there are other things you won't see as well unless you're there. I'll give you an example: there's one guy--but we can't use his name--that on TV looks like his delivery is effortless. It looks like it's nice and easy. But when you're seeing him in person, from front on, you can look at his face and see there's a lot of effort in his arm. And the more effort there is the more chance that someone is going to break down. There's strain in what they do. Now, I don't want to jinx Josh Beckett, but watching him from the side it looks like he's throwing 90-95 percent. It doesn't look like he's exerting much effort when he throws the ball. The great players--they make it look easy. It's the same with musicians. A guy directing an orchestra, who knows the music and can feel the music--his movements just flow. He's not thinking about what he's doing, because he knows where the movement is coming from. If you have to think about what you're doing, and there's an effort to doing it, there's going to be a little stiffness. That's something a scout looks for. Ninety-nine out of 100 times, if a guy makes it look really easy he can play.
DL: What do most fans not understand about scouting?
TB: Many fans played a little bit, so they think they could scout. They think they could watch games and pick out who the best players are. Well, when I scouted Juan Nieves in high school, I knew he was a big-leaguer just like everyone else at his games. But I also saw 30 other guys, who everyone in their hometowns thought was going to be a big-leaguer, and they weren't. It's a lot harder than people realize it is. I love being at the ballpark, but most people don't understand how long it takes to get to where I am, or that there are a lot of sacrifices. The reports are hard, the hotel rooms are hard, being away from your family is hard. People think that it's just a lot of fun, but mentally a lot of people couldn't do it because of all the other stuff. I've been doing this for over 25 years, and I enjoy it, but it's a lot more work than most people realize.